My Grandmother's Braid and the strands of grief in exile

When I sat down in December to reflect on what I would be taking with me into the coming year, I realized that the common refrain of my annual to-do lists always included one thing that I wouldn't be able to carry over into 2021: Travel. With Germany and much of Europe still restricting travel and money tighter and more people falling ill and dying than ever, the idea of going new places, seeing new things, feels selfish and short-sighted. So while we wait for our vaccines, I decided to try something different.

Travel through books.

For the rest of the year, I'll be taking you on a journey to a new country by looking at a new book in translation in a little project I'll call #AroundTheWorldIn10Books. First up is a story straight from my temporary Ersatzheimat, Germany: My Grandmother's Braid by Alina Bronsky (Translated by Tim Mohr).

The world of the Russian immigrant depicted in My Grandmother's Braid feels new to me, far removed from the Germany I inhabit. The story opens in a refugee home not unlike the hundreds of homes that have opened across the country over the last six years. More stable than the container homes that many of the Syrian and Afghani refugees who arrived in 2015 live in, the novel's setting is more reminiscent of a dormitory—long hallways, cots in corners that double as beds, windows overlooking greenery that children cannot play in. Each of these families gets its own apartment with a kitchen, which makes me think the book is set before 2015, before communal kitchens and shared toilets in refugee homes was a thing. It's a depressed, a depressing existence afforded to those who claim exile in one of the world's wealthiest countries, yet seen through the eyes of an elementary school child, the failures and lack of perspective for those in exile are merely described, no value statements assessed. At least not readily.

At the heart of the story is the narrator, a young boy from Russia whose paternity can be traced to a Jewish German dentist in Frankfurt—the man who holds the golden key to their asylum status. In a story that is unique to Germany and its uneven immigration laws, the boy's genetic attachment to this man affords the boy and his grandparents the right to stay in the country. His mother, we learn, has died. His grandmother, a former ballerina, has in her grief created a series of rules for the boy aimed at keeping him alive. He cannot eat ketchup, is fed only mushy vegetables; when he begins at the local elementary school, his grandmother follows along and sits in the back.

At its essence, this novel is a story of grief in its many forms. The grief of losing a mother who you've never known, a beloved daughter who you had known for too short a time. The grief of giving up who you are, the losses of identity that women, mothers, foreigners face. The grief of exile, the sadness that comes along with making your home in a foreign place that ultimately does not care about your existence. Grief over loves lost, things left behind. And the grief of shouldered commitments that are, at times, too much to bear. It's this grief in all its form braided together that creates the narrative. And it is the slow revelations of these layers of grief that makes the story of a cranky, miserable grandmother so relatable.

When she screams at her husband, "Nobody wants the old lady. You hear that, Tschingis? Nobody. I might as well climb into a coffin and you can nail it shut," you can feel the weight of her burdens in a society that prizes youth, that values conformity, that shuns those who do not belong. These lived experiences are at turns an indictment of the reception that foreigners in Germany receive, carefully crafted by an author who herself has had to cope with the chilliness while making a new home in this country. At others, they are an indictment of societal structures that prioritize men.

"I left the stage for him," the former ballerina cries to her grandson about her distant husband. "Not because I was too old. Not because of the broken toes. Because of him. Everything for the family. Always the family that drags you down and breaks you."

What a horrible, heartless thing to say to a child who is that family. Yet the narrator remains unmoved; an unemotional yet highly observant child, the boy relays events with neither judgment nor affection. It's in these observations, however, that the immigrant story of simultaneously adapting and refusing to integrate unfolds. "Grandma ... always changed clothes as soon as she got home because everything she'd worn on the street would spread German inside the apartment, not to mention that they'd get additional unnecessary wear and tear," the boy tells us in a manner that is both neutral and filled with asperity.

The weight of what it means to a foreigner to "spread German in the apartment" and the vitriol contained in such a brief statement showcases the power Brodsky holds in her writing. She can be both canny and biting, humorous and bitter in the telling. While these words can be indirectly attributed to the unhappy grandmother enveloped in her own pain, their use in this story of what it means to be a stranger in an adopted home turns the narrative of the germ-ridden asylum seekers on its head.

And this is wherein the value of the story lies. The details of this world are specific, yet vague. We hear the setting referred to as the big city and only later learn that Frankfurt is nearby. We see the insides of a school, the apartment, described so minimally as to be universal. As specific as the situation that the protagonist with the braid finds herself in and the unique unlike-ability of her, with her curses and slurs, the pain and frustration she experiences is endearing in its reliability. Being able to turn the terror of exile into moments of humor showcases the durability of the immigrant.

Read / Listen / Watch more on immigration and translation:

Damion Searles talks about the art of literary translation
Jhumpa Lahiri on writing in a second language
Vladimir Kaminer on being a Russian immigrant in Germany

A poem, by Karl Shapiro